Utah Department of Environmental Quality Feeling the Squeeze of Depleted Funding

utah water

Since by its own law, the Utah State legislature meets in general session for only 45 days per year, there is a lot of work that goes into what is known as interim study, especially for long-term planning—which is now required for discussion each year during the month of May.

During Wednesday’s modestly attended meeting of the state’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, the discussions centered around long-term budget planning and what the managing officials had to say about the challenges and opportunities before Utah in months and years ahead.

The initial findings of the committee did raise some red flags. Even with the state performing better economically than many others in the union, resources are scarce. Years of lowered taxes and decreasing levels of natural resources are forcing the policy-making leadership of the Beehive State to wrestle with how to do more with less.

And observers are watching for the stress points.

Without much exception, the state’s brain trust has been facing long-term problems requiring adequate and intensive planning. The executive director of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, Amanda Smith, repeated her appropriations testimony of earlier this year that her department has to accept the challenge of more regulatory requirements, without receiving any increased funding from either the Utah legislature or Washington, D.C..

Smith’s office is being squeezed – having to complete complex and often expensive enforcement tasks in an increasingly complex regulatory landscape. In Smith’s agency, air quality and drinking water are now even more significant priorities.

Another long-term challenge presented was the issue of how to accomplish reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from Utah’s coal fired power plants. Senator Jim Dabakis, (Democrat – Salt Lake City) also questioned Smith about Tier III fuels and what the state is doing to prepare for producing and consuming specialized fuels.

30 percent of refineries will not be required to immediately convert to Tier III output, Smith noted. “But what is happening to get us into the 70 percent for fuel standards on the first swing?” Dabakis asked.

Smith explained that larger companies are allowed to average the operational outputs from each of their refineries and then decide which ones they will invest in output upgrades. “Along the Wasatch Front, these refineries are in desperate need of all the upgrades they can manage,” said Dabakis.

Dabakis’ observation was a reminder that for many years, Utah-based refinery operations had few requirements to change or upgrade their facilities to account for the environment.

The chemistry of gasoline consumed by automobiles is addressed in Tier III regulations for sulfur content, which would help to reduce air pollution. Smith indicated that her office was aware that the smaller refinery operators in Utah were already planning to comply with Tier III regulations in their Utah-based business plans.

It was at this point that the executive director of Utah’s Division of Environmental Quality told the legislators that, “The EPA has done a study that shows that of all the places in the United States that would benefit air quality-wise from Tier III gasoline, that the counties along the Wasatch Front would benefit more greatly than anywhere else in the country.”

Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah said, “It is a false choice that would maintain older business models because of our state’s economic reliance on coal or gasoline production. It would be at the expense of innovation to improve the air we breathe.”

Population growth yielding increased pollution and the current drought make the effort at maintaining water quality a higher priority for long-range planning as well. This poses a major threat as 80 percent of Utah’s available water is used for agriculture production. Smith told the committee that nutrient pollution is becoming a significant problem. This is of great concern not only from an environmental standpoint, but also an economic one as it is much more expensive to treat the problem once added nitrogen has entered the water supply.

When asked by the committee chairman, Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City) about emerging or future issues, and if the U.S. government and specifically the EPA is driving the efforts of her agency, Smith responded by saying, “We have to abide by the timelines that are set, either by the EPA or oftentimes now by the courts.” Observers say that this is the result of the Republican supermajority in Utah’s legislature, that has been largely unresponsive to lobbying efforts put forth by special interest groups and is routinely viewed in partisan terms. That’s when environmental advocates often turn to litigation to advance their positions.

Luann Adams, Utah’s recently appointed Commissioner of Agriculture and Food, and Mike Styler from the Department of Natural Resources, both addressed the committee and gave some planning perspectives regarding their stewardship.

Adams said her staff is working to influence expanding local sources for food and food production. At least one of her announcements contradicted assertions by proponents of the new “Sagebrush Rebellion” and often spurred on by the “Cowboy Caucus.”

Ranchers like Nevada’s Cliven Bundy and conservative politicians throughout the West are quick to blame the Bureau of Land Management for their woes, but Commissioner Adams said that her agency was looking for more opportunities to partner with the federal government.

In Box Elder County, Adams said that a partnership to improve grazing on public lands made it so that ranchers like those in her own family were awarded an increase in Animal Unit Month (AUM) designations for grazing permits on public lands. Box Elder’s allowance went from 750 AUMs to 1,000, largely on the basis of cooperation with federal partners on water distribution to improve grazing. Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) had to have the Commissioner repeat the comment to allow it to sink in. “I’ve never heard of an increase in AUMs allowed by the BLM,” he said. “It happened,” replied Adams.

Styler’s time in the hotseat was perhaps the most revealing about how Utahns have come to accept new realities which influence public policy making.

Citing increased numbers of applicants for big game hunting permits, Styler went on to say that his office’s planning (including the efforts of the state’s head water engineer) had to account for long-range weather forecasting that predicts more rain and less snow for the state.

This statement could be seen as an acknowledgement of climate change. Despite conservative denials of climate change, either natural or man-made, the statement may be a sign that political winds in Utah are now shifting toward planning for the realities of the 21st century and the reality of a shifting climate.

The new reality keeps water managers awake at night in a state where the chief water engineer says that the state has more water rights on paper than it has real water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.